Richard’s life was fraught with blood and death from the very beginning, all culminating in his untimely demise on the battlefield at age 33. When he was born, the Wars of the Roses were on the cusp of beginning and they would last throughout his entire lifetime, causing discord and power-hungry chaos to reign free during his rise to power. Richard’s life is inextricably linked to the events of the Wars of the Roses, as each battle resulted in either new lands or secret escapes for his family.
Richard Plantagenet was born on October the 2nd, 1452, at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire to Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Out of 12 children, Richard was the 11th born and the youngest to survive past infancy, making him the youngest son with 3 older brothers and 3 older sisters. His father, Richard, was a descendant of Edward III through his son Lionel and his mother, Cecily, belonged to the incredibly wealthy and powerful Neville family, leaving Richard very rich and well-connected from his birth.
Richard III's father, the Duke of York, at court with King Henry IV and the Duke of Somerset
The powerful houses of Lancaster and York went to battle over the throne of England on May 22nd, 1455, at St. Albans, a small city to the northwest of London. This dispute was a long time in the making, stemming from Edward III’s reign in the 1370s, nearly 100 years earlier. As multiple political figures vied for power over the English throne, two houses emerged as the main contenders and with the crown on the line, they went to war.
The heraldic badges of the York (white) and Lancaster (red) houses
When Richard was only 11 years old, his brother, Edward, was named King of England after the decisive and bloody battle at Towton in March of 1461. It was at Towton that the Lancastrian forces were defeated and the Yorkists finally gained control over the throne with Edward IV’s coronation taking place later that June. With the Yorkist’s rise in power, the young Richard was named Duke of Gloucester and made a knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
The decisive Battle of Towton, during which an estimated 50,000 Yorkist and Lancastrian soldiers fought for 10 hours in a snowstorm. Despite being outnumbered, the Yorkist archers used the adverse weather conditions in their favor, turning the tide of the battle ultimately leading to victory and the installment of Edward IV as king.
In 1465, Richard was placed in the household of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, also known as the Kingmaker after his aid in defeating the Lancastrians and installing Edward as king. Richard spent these formative teenage years at Middleham Castle, a place he would later visit often and claim as his childhood home, until he came of age at 16 and stepped into his duties as Duke and political ally to his brother, the King.
Digital recreation of Middleham Castle as it may have appeared at its peak in 1480
Following Edward’s rise to power, Neville attempted to arrange a marriage between Edward and a French noblewoman to strengthen their ties to France following the Hundred Years War. However, Edward had already secretly married Elizabeth Woodville in May of 1464, therefore placing her family into positions of power that rivaled those of Warwick and making him look a fool for not knowing his king was already married. Upset at this slight, Neville rebelled and succeeded in briefly restoring Henry VI to the throne in 1470 and regaining his powerful hold on England.
A contemporary portrait of Earl Richard Neville, the "Kingmaker"
While Neville and Henry controlled the crown, Richard remained loyal to his brother Edward, the now exiled king taking refuge in the Netherlands. While in exile, the brothers rounded up Flemish merchants and decided to attack the Lancastrians at Yorkshire in March of 1471. At the battle of Barnet in April of 1471, Neville was killed and Henry VI was soon after placed in the Tower of London. Later, in May, Henry’s wife Margaret, who had continued fighting despite her husband’s capture, was finally defeated, and their only son killed at the decisive battle at Tewkesbury. Edward IV was reinstated as King of England and the House of York ruled again.
The Battle of Tewkesbury as depicted in the Ghent manuscript, during which the Yorkist forces defeated the Lancastrian army, despite being outnumbered.
Richard married Anne Neville, the daughter of Earl Richard Neville, in July of 1472, following the more or less peaceful resumption of power by his brother Edward. The Neville family was one of the most prominent families in England during this time, making Richard a very wealthy and well-connected man. For the next 11 years, Richard increased his influence and land holdings in the north of England by putting down rebellions and taking land from Scotland.
Anne Neville Queen of England, 19th Century Engraving
In April of 1483, Edward IV died, leaving his 12-year-old son as his heir and naming Richard as Lord Protector. Before Edward IV’s son, Edward V, could be crowned king, Richard had the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville declared invalid, therefore making him the rightful heir to the throne. Richard took the children, Edward and Richard (Edward’s younger brother) as captives and held them in the Tower of London while he was crowned King of England in July of 1483. The two princes disappeared that summer and were never seen again, leading to terrible rumors.
"The Children of Edward" by 19th century painter Paul Delaroche, depicting Edward IV's children as they were kept in the Tower of London by their Uncle Richard III. Their fate is unknown, but many suspect Richard had them killed to solidify his claim to the throne.
Richard’s reign was brief and filled with rumors and deception. After his usurpation of the throne, Richard was cast in a dim light that would follow him for the rest of history. While king, Richard struggled to maintain the loyalty of his subjects and allies, and soon found his old supporters switching sides. After the sudden death of Anne Neville in 1485, rumors spread that Richard had killed her to free himself to marry again and strengthen his hold on the throne. Sensing weakness, Henry Tudor knew it was time to act.
A late 16th century portrait of Richard III
By 1485, many nobles had defected from Richard’s court to join Henry Tudor, a noble with a tainted claim to the throne exiled in France. Henry’s claim through the Lancastrian line was weak, but after the death of Richard III’s only son, he decided to take a chance. Gathering mercenary troops from France, Henry landed in Wales and made his way east, gathering support from Englishmen along the way. Richard met Henry at Bosworth Field on August 22nd, 1485 and was killed during the battle. Although the exact cause of death is unknown, Richard suffered several brutal woulds to his skull, jaw, ribs, and pelvis consistent with similar fatal injuries of the era. Richard's body was buried with little ceremony at the church of the Franciscan Friars. Henry won the throne of England through combat and was crowned Henry VII, thus ending the Wars of the Roses.
The Battle of Bosworth by 19th century artist Philip James de Loutherbourg depicts Henry Killing Richard with a lance on horseback.
Richard III remained a villain throughout history, even being depicted as crippled and corrupt by Shakespeare in his play Richard III. While his legacy lived on as a dark piece of England’s history, his story was never forgotten. In 2012, while unearthing the site of the Franciscan monastery where Richard was rumored to have been buried, a body with scoliosis and battle wounds was discovered. After performing DNA testing on the skeleton, the University of Leicester officially announced the finding of Richard III’s skeleton on February 4th, 2013. Over 2 years later, Richard III’s remains were reburied at Leicester Cathedral following an extensive ceremony that celebrated his life and legacy as King.
Richard III's tomb after his remains were identified and moved to Leicester Cathedral
Although Richard’s skeleton did show signs of spinal curvature, he was nowhere near as crippled as Shakespeare portrayed him. It is obvious from this portrayal and the stories that accompanied him throughout history, that Richard was vilified for his usurpation of the throne and particularly for killing his 2 nephews, the Princes in the Tower. While he may have become a power-hungry king at the end of his life, for many years he was a man of great prestige and influence, ruling over northern England and parts of Scotland.